A mid-August Spanish Super Cup defeat seemed likely to foreshadow Barcelona spending another campaign looking up at Real Madrid. It’s been anything but, yet even an unexpected eight-point lead over the European title holders hasn’t shielded the Blaugrana from criticism centered around the waning of their dominant possession-based attacking style. First-year manager Ernesto Valverde has said he won’t apologise for style when winning. The numbers show he might be right not to, and his detractors may want to take a look at the objective data before firing more arrows.
To say the Catalans are still at their best would be irresponsible because their best was another level of greatness. Even an undefeated La Liga run into November can’t hide that. Sergio Busquets, one of the holdovers from the club’s peak seasons, acknowledges they’re not playing with that same elegance he grew used to. Luis Suárez probably isn’t made for the left side the way Neymar was. Ousmane Dembélé is injured. Andrés Iniesta is still a midfield genius, but one with 33-year-old legs. Lionel Messi’s role has become more central and withdrawn under Valverde after we grew used to seeing him work into the middle from the right side in the MSN years under Luis Enrique.
Given Barcelona’s staunch summer pursuit of Philippe Coutinho, it seems they might have seen much of it coming and tried to bring in a talented player that’d fit Valverde’s system. And while STATS Playing Styles shows how Liverpool’s attacking midfielder might be the right guy to return to that style, it also shows Busquets might not be giving his team quite enough credit in his assessment of their early-season form as it compares to their results.
Busquets is on record saying the Blaugrana haven’t played “brilliantly,” which is difficult to define. It may look different, but the results in terms of objective style haven’t changed quite as much after Neymar’s departure as the critics may indicate.
First consider Barcelona’s style from 2016-17 when Neymar played 30 league matches:
Now consider this season below. Barcelona have actually played slightly more fast-tempo football without Neymar when measured against La Liga averages. Busquets might be noticing the difference in particular areas, which makes sense given the pitch perspective he’s working with: As a holding midfielder, he’s responsible for plenty of build up. That, along with Barcelona’s sustained threat – two styles indicative of possession-based dominance – have dropped off. Their build-up style is down from +125 percent of league average last season to +103 this campaign. Their sustained threat is down from +88 to +62. They’re still working the ball forward through build up at La Liga-best rates, though it might not be the level of dominance Busquets grew used to:
STATS Playing Styles also throws into question the assumption that Valverde has transformed the team as a whole back into the ball-recovery style of old under Pep Guardiola. They’re a top-six team in high press among La Liga teams this season, but that style wasn’t as absent last season under Luis Enrique as many have thought. It’s actually dropped some from +19 percent of league average to +15 under Valverde.
There are even deeper shifts that have come from the personnel changes of the summer, and some have been rather positive. We’ve used STATS Ball Movement Points in the past to show the now-quantifiable value of playmakers such as Kevin De Bruyne, and we’ll use it here to show how Valverde is getting the most out of two players who fell off some in Enrique’s last season.
BMP considers every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play, and assigning a value between zero and one. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.
oBMP also applies to defenders, and it’s particularly useful with wing backs. Jordi Alba has experienced something of a rejuvenation this season, stating himself that he feels he’s been opened up on the left side to attack more with Neymar gone. Alba ranked 24th in La Liga oBMP last season (3.41). This campaign, his 1.31 mark through just nine matches is up to 12th and on the level of players such as Busquets, Marco Asensio and Luka Modrić.
One player he’s not ahead of is Ivan Rakitić, whose midfield play hasn’t advanced just because of Messi’s positional changes. It’s also been augmented with Nélson Semedo at right back as Barcelona’s long-sought replacement for Dani Alves. Midfielder Sergi Roberto had the job last season, which resulted in playing with three at the back much of the time.
Rakitić ranks fifth in La Liga oBMP (1.68) behind just Messi, Isco, Jonathan Viera and Toni Kroos. The initial reaction to that might be one of surprise since Rakitić isn’t scoring – he had eight goals last season and has none so far this campaign – but Barcelona have enough scorers. They pay the Croatian for his midfield process, and that’s what oBMP calculates. It’s been measurably better after he ranked 27th in oBMP last season at 3.19. He’s over half way to that mark in 11 games, and that’s supported in Playing Styles with Rakitić’s percentage of on-pitch contributions for his club.
First, 2016-17. The number at the base of each style indicates his rank on the Barcelona squad based on his percent contribution to a given style when he’s on the pitch:
Notice he accounted for nine percent of Barcelona’s oBMP+, and his player rankings among his own club in possession-based styles of maintenance, build up, sustained threat and fast tempo are lacking. Compare it to this season, and he’s clearly got a more involved role in the midfield’s attack with an increased oBMP+ contribution:
He now ranks second in on-pitch build-up involvement percentage behind only Iniesta a season after trailing 10 Barcelona players. He now ranks third in fast-tempo involvement behind Dembélé’s small sample size and Alba a season after trailing nine teammates.
But Rakitić’s offensive involvement only tells part of the story. Semedo isn’t mirroring Alba on the other side of the pitch as Alves did and Roberto did at times. Rather, he’s playing in a truer defensive role, leaving Rakitić responsible for more of the right-side attacking distribution and less of the defending. The result? The midfielder ranks 52rd in La Liga defensive Ball Movement Points (dBMP) this season (0.25) after placing 205th last campaign (0.23). Barcelona are leaning on someone else to break up attacks in important situations, and Rakitić is probably in more suitable surroundings to avoid giving the ball away in dangerous circumstances.
Do a player-focused comparison in Playing Styles, and that’s supported by a Semedo’s 10 percent on-pitch defensive contribution versus Roberto’s seven percent mark last season.
Let’s now look ahead to the transfer window. We’ve used Playing Styles here to show team form and deep-level individual production. Let’s combine the two to show how a player might be of use in a different system.
It’s easy to say Coutinho is a fit for Barcelona for surface-level reasons. He’s a player who can slot into that left-side attacking role, possibly freeing up Suárez to work more centrally, or Coutinho can fall into more of a midfield role to replace Iniesta’s still-busy but worn legs. However, especially in today’s transfer market with fees reaching incredible levels for players of Coutinho’s quality, clubs might need a bit more empirical evidence. That exists with Coutinho, and it goes beyond relying on the assumption that a move from a gegenpressing Jürgen Klopp system to Valverde’s is in some ways a lateral move.
Coutinho has only played in five of Liverpool’s 11 league matches this season, so we have nearly equal sample sizes of the Reds’ style with and without him. Consider first Liverpool’s matches without him:
The five matches he’s played have all been starts in which he’s played 90 minutes twice and 79 minutes three times. Consider the Reds’ style here, noting the massive increase in sustained threat and fast tempo, and also the dip in direct play – all of which suit Barcelona:
Ronaldinho has gone out of his way to state Coutinho would be a perfect fit for the 2005 Ballon d’Or winner’s former club, and the data shows he’s probably right about his fellow Brazilian No. 10. Coutinho can play at fast tempo and won’t be overwhelmed by a Barcelona attacking style often dictated by the likes of fleet-footed Messi or the overlapping Alba. What’s more is he might be the right player to retrieve what Barcelona have lost in terms of style this season because he’s clearly familiar with operating in tight spaces of sustained attacking threat like Iniesta. Notice even the ever-so-slight increase in Liverpool’s high press when Coutinho plays. That’s a system both Liverpool in recent seasons and the current Barcelona boss value.
It’s all supported by Coutinho’s involvements for Liverpool. He’s contributing 18 percent of their build up, which is higher than even Iniesta (15). He’s contributing 17 percent of their sustained threat, which at Barcelona trails only Messi (19). And he’s contributing 15 percent of their fast tempo, which would lead the Spanish giants. How effective has he been in doing so? His 17 percent oBMP+ contribution leads Liverpool, meaning he’s their most ambitious creator. That mark is bettered by one man on either club: Messi.
That’s a style that may suit Valverde. And Busquets might even call it brilliant.